For many of us, the topic of death and dying is grim, sad and sometimes unfathomable. Our culture as a whole tends to focus on health, youthfulness and living a long life. After all, who wants to think about the inevitable?
These truths make the 11th Hour program and its volunteers at Sharp Grossmont Hospital all the more extraordinary. Offered through the Center for Spiritual Care, the program provides patients identified to be near death with comfort and companionship during those final hours of their life. Many of these patients would otherwise have no one with them. Any staff or family member can initiate the request for an 11th Hour volunteer to be assigned to the patient within the hour.
Chaplain Judy Ray began the program in 2010. "I wanted to do something for patients who were dying and didn't have anyone to be with them at that moment," says Ray. "Some actually have nobody, while some families are scattered all over the country. Other families and friends stay at the patient's bedside beyond the point of exhaustion, and this program offers those people a chance to take a shower, check on the house and just ensure that someone will be with their loved one if they can't be."
More than 500 patients have been served by the program. Volunteers are screened carefully, and receive a minimum of 12 hours of training that includes help in answering the question of, "What do I say?" Among other requirements, individuals must be accepting of cultural and religious diversity, respectful of patient and family needs, and not be in the midst of their own grievance or difficult personal times.
Volunteers range in age, and include some hospital staff who donate their time. Sonia Salem is a mother still raising young children, but finds the time to participate as an 11th Hour volunteer. "It's an honor to be with someone in their final moments and be the last person they hear," she says. "Even if they can't speak, I know they can hear me reading to them, and it's just such a privilege to provide that comfort."
Retired psychologist Jim Bull is 80 years old and volunteers for 11th Hour, as well as at hospice residences. He says his goal is to provide comfort and reassurance to his patients through kind words and a gentle touch.
"These are people who are actively dying, and usually nonresponsive," says Bull. "Their hearing, though, is usually the last thing to go, so my rule is to sit at their bedside and just talk to them. I reassure them that they are not alone, and connect with them by telling them that all of us will go through this at some point. It's just that now is the time for them."
Jim says he hopes that he gives them what he someday wants — a peaceful, conscious passing. "I want to be there for it, and I see my role as helping them be there for it too."For each patient they accompany, volunteers write an 11th Hour Call Report to share their experience with staff. One volunteer penned the experience in these words: